Sunday, March 29, 2009

Movie Review - Crossing Over

Like the Oscar-winning Best Picture "Crash", this movie is based in Los Angeles, has a lot on its mind, a truckload of characters/storylines to juggle and a rather heavy handed approach in making its points. Harrison Ford stars as Max Brogan, a weary but compassionate immigration officer who's clearly overdue for retirement. He's surrounded with an impressive cast, including Ray Liotta as Cole Frankel, a corrupt immigration worker who demands sexual favors in exchange for green card status for a desparate Aussie actress (Alice Eve); Ashley Judd as Denise Frankel, Cole's clueless but noble wife who works with immigrant children; Jim Sturgess as Gavin Kossef, a British Jew trying to make it as a singer; Summer Bishil, a Middle Eastern girl whose provcative school presentation on the 9/11 terrorists lands her family in trouble; Justin Chon as Yong Kim, a kid who falls in with the typical gangbangers and Cliff Curtis as Hamid Baraheri, Brogan's partner who's an Iranian American with a murdered sister and sinister secrets. And that's just a partial cast/character list. Some of the storylines work, some don't but there's melodrama to spare with extreme situations that overload the audience's involvement level.

Writer/director Wayne Kramer obviously means well in trying to bring multiple immigrant issues to light and casting a wide spectrum of ethnic actors for pivotal roles. I wish he'd put as much effort into his script, however, and whittled the character list down to a minimum with more focus and depth. There are too many predictable elements, too many tragic events, too much of everything, resulting in a dizzying kaleidescope that's almost numbing. One scene towards the end of the film really stretches credibility when a character is exposed for criminal acts during a large naturalization ceremony attended by many of the leading characters. Gimme a break. Though "Crossing Over" has its heart in the right place, its approach is all over the map, causing even the best elements in the story to be crushed under the weightiness of it all.

Things to love about this movie: Harrison Ford manages to create an interesting character despite the mediocre script; a pleasure to see little known performers like Summer Bishil and Justin Chon given considerable screen time; good to have Ray Liotta back in a drama, even if his character is over the top

Things to hate about this movie: A repetitious series of raids on factories employing illegal immigrants becomes almost as wearying for the audience as it is for Brogan; too many characters without enough depth; Alice Eve's limited acting ability; the sad but completely predictable ending

Pleasant surprises: Brogan has a pet cat! Los Angeles looks real and gritty

Unpleasant surprises: Jim Sturgess, an interesting actor and singer, seems miscast here

Monday, March 9, 2009

Movie Review: The Class ("Entre les murs")

Here is a classroom drama for the 21st century, complete with disenfranchised students, frustrated teachers and a system that's failing everyone on every level. Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau) has been teaching French at an inner city Parisian school for 4 years with an obvious passion for his subject, yet only a small handful of his 14-15 year old pupils has any interest whatsoever in learning. Talking and bickering during class, displaying little respect for their teacher and completing assignments with half hearted efforts, this group of racially mixed kids seems almost unreachable. As the film progresses, however, a fascinating dynamic develops among students, teacher and the school system. Marin begins to discover just how irrelevant to the lives of these students his curriculum seems and how fine a line must be drawn between confronting disciplinary problems and offending his pupils. His classroom is full of interesting characters: Wei (Wei Huang), a refreshingly studious and well behaved Chinese student; Khoumba (Rachel Regulier), a smart, confrontational black student; Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani), a complicated and quirky Arab student; and the disruptive Souleymane (Franck Keita) from Mali, whose tragic lack of confidence causes him to act out in ways which earn him numerous disciplinary hearings.

Begaudeau, who wrote the screenplay and the book on which the film is based, is an appealing actor who appears to be playing a semi-autobiographical role, bringing out the many conflicting emotions of this teacher in a compelling way. The young actors playing the kids, many of whom share the same names as their characters, are uniformly excellent and authentic. This biting, involving and disturbing movie is a welcome relief from the usual "Hollywood" version of school drama where solutions are found, lives are turned around, teachers rewarded and students enlightened. Perhaps the most provocative thing about "The Class" is that, despite bad behavior and poor attitdues from the kids, we're left with the feeling that the teachers and the school system have somehow let these students down, rather than the other way around.

Things to love about this movie: A heartbreaking scene in which Marin praises Souleymane for the wonderful photographs he's taken for an assignment while the usually surly student can barely contain his delight yet at the same time cannot accept the compliments as valid; interesting teacher conferences during which many concerns and frustrations are aired; the many subtle ways in which students and teacher impact each others' lives; an amazing cast with wonderful faces and exuberance

Things to hate about this movie: The outcome for Souleymane (though it is neither unexpected nor unrealistic)

Pleasant surprises: No easy solutions or relationships; awareness of the many complications for immigrant students trying to fit into a very Caucasian school system

Unpleasant surprises: The betrayal of teacher by students and vice versa